Yangon's flowering art scene

Temporary gallery provides a haven for Myanmar's artists

A dilapidated house in Yangon has undergone a renaissance and become a temporary art space for the months of April and May.

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Ko Z’s pieces are juxtaposed with the busy, polluted street outside by using natural materials such as wood, charcoal, bamboo and Shan paper.

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Mrat, co-founder of 7000 Paduak.

Located near the port on Strand Road in downtown Yangon, 7000 Padauk is named after a flower that blooms in Myanmar throughout April. The building shakes as large trucks trundle by outside; inside, faded green walls, rickety stairs and mismatched artworks create a haven in the midst of this rapidly developing city.

Ko Z, from southern Shan State, has just launched the Green Cloud environmental art exhibition here and dedicated it to internally displaced people in Kachin State, who have fled their homes due to ongoing fighting in the region between the Myanmar army and ethnic insurgents.

"Being from 'the hills', I was always interested in land art," said the artist, who wanted to recreate the magical feeling of entering a forest. His pieces on display are juxtaposed with the busy, polluted street outside by using natural materials such as wood, charcoal, bamboo and Shan paper. Dry leaves have been scattered across the downstairs floor and brash graffiti from previous events is layered on the walls. One piece depicts Mickey Mouse being strangled and led away by a guard.

"The arts scene is in its transition period, so artists can now take issues that we could not touch in the past. Now we can deal with politics and criticise the government," said Moe Satt, a performance artist who founded the art festival Beyond Pressure in 2008. He said that while there is no longer any media censorship, there is still censorship of the visual arts and films.

"Artists are getting braver," said Ko Z, who supports his family by working as a designer on the side. "But artists are fragile and this has offered them a free space where they can showcase their works."

7000 Padauk, located on Strand Road in Yangon.

The founders of 7000 Padauk, Nathalie Johnston and Mrat, while providing materials and a gallery, "don't interfere with the artists", said Ko Z.

"Once people came they kept coming back, so it's been a very full experience," said Johnston, an American, who first began studying Myanmar's contemporary art scene in 2003.

In 2009 at Beyond Pressure, she met Mrat, a performance artist originally from Sittwe in the strife-torn Rakhine State. They have been talking about creating an arts space together ever since. The opportunity arose when Mrat's uncle donated this building for use before it is demolished in June to make way for an apartment block.

Together, they attempted a Kickstarter campaign to fund some slight modifications to the building, like adding a water pump and hooking up electricity. Using the online fundraising system turned out to be impossible due to Myanmar's underdeveloped banking system, so they did it the old-fashioned way: friends and acquaintances posted cheques and gave cash donations. Before long, they had far exceeded their goal of US$3,500 (100,000 baht) to run the space for a month.

"We did talk about painting the walls white and giving it more of a gallery feeling, but we realised that that would defeat the purpose of the space," said Johnston, who feels local artists are much more comfortable in this space, talking on small chairs in the heat, as opposed to a white walled gallery.

Mrat, who grew up being a part of the changing landscape, has seen many developments. "We don't have an art market, so we don't care about an art market," he said. "When you compare Chinese artists to us, it's all about the art market and money for them.

"The transformation of the house is all about boundaries and how far can you push something," he said.

"It's also about censorship and how [the government] trains you to censor yourself and say there is no censorship, so we opened this space with no boundaries and allow people to figure out whatever direction to go in."

Different exhibits have taken place, as well as performance art pieces, a documentary workshop and community art projects. Secreted away at the back of the gallery, a few dozen black and white photos are pinned haphazardly on a wall. In each one a naked Myanmar women is depicted in various poses; they are eerily beautiful, hidden in the shadows.

"They were sent to us anonymously," said Johnston. And besides this mysterious contributor, she and Mrat have made a point of filming every artist and collating the pieces on YouTube.

"The point is to just get more information out there. There are so many artists doing all these amazing things and you can't find any of it online," said Johnston, who also runs Myanmar Art Evolution, an online database of contemporary artists in the country.

"It's been incredibly dynamic for decades," she said. "They just didn't have a lot of venues or funding so they have been doing it all on their own — isolated."

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Writer: Rosie Gogan-Keogh